x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Jaguar unleashes its XKR-S beast onto the sportscar market

Road Test The British car maker revisits its sporting roots with a car that gives any Porsche a run for its money.

The new S version has been only slightly modified from the Jaguar XKR but it produces an impressive 542hp at 6,000rpm and 679Nm of torque. Courtesy of Jaguar
The new S version has been only slightly modified from the Jaguar XKR but it produces an impressive 542hp at 6,000rpm and 679Nm of torque. Courtesy of Jaguar

The thing you notice is the noise. Oh sure, that big spoiler might be your first clue that this is no ordinary Jaguar. And certainly the poke-me-in-the-eye "French Racing" Blue paint job gets your attention. We've all been fooled by cars before, but the noise; that you can't fake.

And where every other high-performance Jaguar I've ever tested - including the most recent version of the XKR - has quietly gone about its business, as if it could somehow disguise all the tyre smoke waffling upwards from the rear boots if the exhaust note were just hushed and refined, the new S is loud. It barks. It booms. It roars. Time a downshift just right and it cackles like Freddie Krueger trying to figure out how to best carve up the unsuspecting Seat two car-lengths ahead. Squeeze the throttle and you'd swear that big supercharger up front will just swallow that poor Ibiza whole; no need for Freddie to dissect the poor little hatch with a chainsaw.

It's a mad thing, the XKR-S, the first Jaguar (at least since the XJ220) that overtly advertises that Coventry really does make some very fast cars. Fast as in 542hp, a 300+ kph top speed and just 4.4 seconds to sprint to 100kph. That's serious performance by any standards, even more so when you consider that the XKR-S weighs in at a hardly lithe 1,753kg and is still saddled with an automatic transmission, without the super-sophisticated "Launch Control" systems that let Porsche Turbos boast such incredible acceleration times. Think 911 Turbo S or Audi R8 (V10 version) and you have some idea of how hard this big pussycat accelerates.

And not only does it accelerate like a true champion, it makes it all seem so effortless. Though Jaguar will boast most loudly about the 542hp available at 6,000rpm, it is the 679Nm of torque that truly impresses. Even that number fails to capture the allure of the big cat. Scorching along Portugal's diabolically twisty roads, the XKR-S fairly leaps from corner to corner without the need for the tach needle to ever swing past 4,000. Even short shifting at 2,500rpm sees the pace push way beyond the legal limit. With that huge wave of torque cresting so early, there really is little need to throttle the engine to its 6,500rpm redline. So, yes, there are (slightly) faster cars. Precious few, however, do it with less sturm und drang.

What makes this personality transformation even more impressive is how few changes were required for this infusion of character. Really, other than a very modest bump in compression to 9.5:1, all that Jaguar did was uncork the exhaust and remove the engine ECU algorithm that limits torque output. It was made possible by the more robust torque converter added to the ZF automatic (transmissions, especially automatics, are almost always the weak link in the powertrain when it comes to the massive torque infusions that result from super or turbocharging). Current XKR owners will, of course, note that a whole bunch of performance is but a pipe and chip change away, though using it in the first few gears may destroy their transmissions.

The XKR chassis undergoes similarly minimalist changes, yet the effect is almost as dramatic on the new S. According to Jaguar, for instance, the front spring rates are up 28 per cent and the rears a whopping 32 per cent. The effect is more than just noticeable. Indeed, roll is all but eliminated, even on a monstrously high-speed circuit like the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve, otherwise known as Portimao. Adding to that control is a much stiffer front suspension upright which Jaguar earns credit for, through the obvious improvement in the XKR-S's steering; turn-in is far sharper and feedback through the leather-lined steering wheel far more subtle (lighter rims and less unsprung weight help as well). The XKR-S rifles through corners with none of the ambiguity of lesser XKs. Throw in a computer-controlled limited slip differential, which works seamlessly, a track-calibrated traction control system, which is still a little too nannying at low speeds, and some monstrous four-piston, 380mm front brakes and this is one Jag that doesn't have to hide behind a "grand touring" appellation - the XKR-S will give the best Porsches a serious run for their money.

This new-found performance comes at a price, however. If you want the Full Monty experience, you have to switch the suspension's onboard controller to Dynamic mode. Doing so firms up the re-valved Bilstein shocks to better dampen those stiffer springs. In so doing, any vestige of Jaguar's traditional "boulevardier" suspension compliance disappears.

Think Corvette-style ride quality. Or maybe a lowered Mitsubishi EVO with aftermarket springs. One can, of course, always dial back to the suspension's normal mode, but it's quite a shock to be riding in something wearing a Jaguar badge that feels like a refugee that just escaped from a Le Mans qualifying run.

The cabin, thankfully, has more than enough traditional Jaguar cues to remind you that you haven't mistakenly plunked your butt in a Maserati or a GT2 RS. The leather, in the finest Jaguar tradition, is oh-so-supple (though, in a change, it is thoroughly modernly styled with a carbon-fibre pattern grafted into the natural hide); the circular transmission actuator is just like the XJ's; and, yup, that's a Bowers and Wilkins audio system blaring at you, again, like the XJ's.

Indeed, the same complaints against the base XK apply to the S; the navigation system can be a little wonky and that pretence of a rear seat limits legroom in the front and how far you can recline the seat back. Jaguar continues to claim that its customers demand those rear perches, but I can't imagine anyone enjoying the ride from the back of this 542hp monster, especially if the suspension is set to full assault.

The S is a wonderful addition to the XK family. Though purists will lament the lack of a manual gearbox - or even a dual-clutch manumatic - the XKR-S (priced at £97,000 in the UK) finally dispels the illusion that Jaguar has forgotten its sporting roots. If the 542hp doesn't convince you, that crazy, cackling exhaust surely will.

The XKR-S will come to the UAE, but no dates or prices have been set.